The Power of Safe Spaces

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We had a major win last week at Casa Mantay, a home and school for teen mothers aged 12-17. We work with the girls once a week in the morning and always have a lot of fun letting loose and playing outside for an hour and a half. They are pure goofballs, and it has been such a pleasure to watch them grow and mature over the course of the past year.


Three weeks ago, we had some problems at the court that detracted from our normal, relaxing class time. This semester the court has been locked, and we had to reserve it. We called the woman who owns it at the beginning of the semester and explained the program to her, and that we would like to have class there every Thursday morning. She graciously gave us the court space for free and told us that it would always be open for us during those hours. We never had a problem until three weeks ago, when we showed up and the court was still locked. While we waited with the girls for the owner to unlock the court, 20 guys showed up and wanted to use the court as well. We had seen them all throughout the semester and they had tried to kick us off the court before. As we approached the court, the men muttered, “This court is only for men,” and, “Only strong people can use this court.”


We started class 30 minutes late while the owner talked to the men. When we saw them all take a seat on the side to watch, we asked the owner if she could make them leave because the men that come always yell things that detract from our girls’ ability to focus and be fully present in class. For example, during their warm-up laps, the girls cut half the corner to avoid running by the men, and one girl hid behind the wall and refused to come out to play. This is not the kind of safe environment that we seek to foster for the girls who come to our program, so we knew something needed to be done. Unfortunately, she said the men were going to stay, but that they promised to be silent and “just watch” (not addressing the problem), and then she left. Their promises were empty and, all during class that day, the men yelled and taunted us as we played.


At the end of the class, we walked back to the house with the girls. We talked with Casa Mantay’s program director and explained what had happened and how we didn’t feel comfortable going back to the court until something changed. She wholeheartedly agreed and said that she was going to talk to the municipality about community solutions. Luckily, we had a field trip to play laser-tag the next week, so we had extra time to figure out a solution.


When we went back to the court this past week, we didn’t know what to expect and we didn’t want to risk putting the girls in an unsafe space. We had brainstormed moving class within the walls of the casa, despite little court space. Luckily, there was no sign of the men that day. Casa Mantay also sent a worker to sit on the side and watch class. In addition, the municipality sent a police officer to stay near the court while we played. We now have his phone number, so we can call if anything happens. These precautions will continue in the future, and we feel much safer knowing that the community cares about the well-being of our girls.


That class was the best class we have had with Mantay in a long time. We had 10 girls, and we introduced kickball, which they picked up like champs! We saw them running faster, kicking harder, and talking about game strategy like never before. They were so present and excited to play for the entire class. We left class with hearts full of pride in watching them grow and open up.


I want to emphasize the power of having a safe space to explore, grow, and just be you. Not all men are bad, and it’s easy to be angry and feel mad at outside sources rather than looking inward at finding actionable solutions. But when the presence of the men threatened that safe space, we could see the girls close up, lose focus, and grow increasingly nervous in their body language. Once there was security, safety, and familiarity at the court, their faces filled with smiles, and we saw them open up, play stronger, and more confidently than before. It really showed me how much the work we are doing, when done right, can have an impact on the lives of our girls. I don’t think I will ever take for granted the power of a safe space.